Updated: Sep 27, 2022
Picture a cold winter. Snow crackling under your feet, blizzards, wind howling across the wastelands and forests with overwhelming darkness falling on the world way earlier now than in other seasons. In addition, imagine yourself by a small fire, in the belly of a cold cave, or a little nearer along the axis of time, in a primitive house made by human hands. Antlers are hanging on the walls, on the bed and on your back animal furs sewn together with a bone needle, in the flickering light of dancing flames lies the hint of a weapon, always at hand in readiness: a knife and your trusty axe, not far away, an arrow basket and a bow, always close within reach, ready for its prey. Assume that you leave your home at dawn or even earlier before the sun rises into the sky. On leaving, you pray to your Gods and ask for a rewarding hunt. Your neighbours go alongside you, each armed with a spear and a bow on their shoulder. Last night you were busy crafting new arrows and mending ones that are still usable, oiling the string with tallow and carefully inspecting the bow to make sure that it does not fail in the moment of trial. It has a special place in your home — your children and wife know that it is sacred. They are not allowed to play with it or take it needlessly. The same goes for arrows. Although they were created in tandem to bring death, in essence, they are life. They sustain life through what ends up in your mouth owing to them. They feed your family, your neighbours and their children. Thanks to the bow, your home is warm, for it helps to awaken a dormant fire. It has given you clothes and your neighbour sometimes plays on it, making everyone’s time in the dark winter evenings a bit more pleasant. These are God’s gifts like hands and eyes. The world without them, would devour you and your family in the blink of an eye. You are here for they are alongside you… You look at them and know that time in all its immensity has no power over them — as if they came from a place beyond the reach of transience, from a realm beyond history. Your children, their children and people so distant to you on the axis of continuity you never get to know them or even imagine who and what they will become or whom and what they were had used them since the dawn of a time and shall use them just as you do now.
Now, think of the first and last people on earth: no matter when, this two things link them together — a bow and arrow — the undeniable heritage of mankind. The origins of the bow are shrouded in the opaque darkness of ancient times. It was probably invented across the African continent and then made its way to Europe with the help of nomadic peoples via the Iberian Peninsula. Abundant finds of flint arrowheads, the making of which required skilful and long-lasting processing of hard stone, testify to the presence of this weapon already in Palaeolithic cultures (the early Stone Age). It is therefore presumed that they could have been used in trade as a means of currency or as a sort of capital investment.
At first, arrowheads had a rather uniform shape, which was due to the lack of experience and appropriate tools for their shaping, but already in the Neolithic Age, they were given a variety of profiles depending on their purpose. Thus, chisel-shaped, needle-shaped, heart-shaped and burr-headed tips emerged.
Testimony to its existence and practical use in prehistoric times may also be found in the rock drawings unearthed in the ravines of the Sahara and the caves of Spain. The Caballos cave, for example, depicts the act of deer hunting. This painting seems to predate the end of the Palaeolithic. Such rudimentary weapons represented a type of hand-held (neuroblastic) projectile weapon of warfare and hunting, called today the primitive bow or equatorial bow, after their region of occurrence. Those were made from a single piece of resilient wood (yew, ash, maple, elm). Nearly straight or slightly curved, with string applied loosely or with little tension, to withhold the principle of releasing the energy of elastic deformation. With time, as people were becoming more and more aware of the world around them, when the first civilizations appeared, states and then empires with great armies formed, while cultural and technological progress accelerated, the bow as a patrimony of mankind remained ever-present, if not even more so. Although it underwent certain modifications and improvements in the new conditions, it still stood for what it was created for. While bringing destruction to some, it offered life to others, a fact which did not escape human reasoning, and therefore, apart from its importance as a tool, it also acquired a symbolic meaning, conveying the power and resilience of vital forces.
As far away as Europe, India and Japan, it was considered a noble weapon, worthy of great commanders and chivalrous knights. It meant strike and conquest. Its shape represented the moon sickle. With its aid, the priests and men of knowledge foretold the future and performed complicated magic rituals. The arrow itself symbolized sudden phenomena such as lightning, thunder, divine judgement, catastrophe, wind, rain, pain, hunger, war and pestilence, along with sudden death. It also signified hunting, sun or moonlight and enlightenment by the radiance of knowledge. Moreover, as a phallic symbol, it was associated with sensuality, love and fertility. Accordingly, arrows pulled from wounds were believed to relieve labor pains, whereas found arrows — believed to be shot by elves or fairies — could protect against charms. With the bow, man could also, allegedly for the first time, establish a dialogue with supreme powers by sending an arrow into the sky in response to lightning. Therefore, it is not surprising that Sagittarius appeared as a constellation on the celestial vault already in antiquity. Among others, the Babylonians saw it there in the 11th century BC. For the ancient Greeks, this weapon was held in exceptional esteem and even reverence. It was supposed to be used by Gods and mythical heroes as well as famous warriors. Indeed, there is a good reason why the bow and quiver became permanent attributes of Apollo, the Lord of the Silver Bow, carrying symbolic arrows of the cleansing rays of the sun, Artemis (Diana), the Goddess of hunting, sending arrows representing the rays of the moon, and Eros (Cupid, Amor) striking the hearts of men with his arrows of sudden love. It is said that the mythical Amazons, a tribe of warrior women, supposedly deprived themselves of their right breast so as to be able to draw the bow more efficiently. Nor has anyone heard of the death of Achilles at Troy, struck down in the heel by Paris arrow? Didn’t it happen that, by a will of mistake, the noble centaur Chiron gave his last breath when the poisoned arrow of Heracles plunged into his chest? Yet deliberately, in retribution of an insult to their mother, Artemis and Apollo killed Niobe’s twelve children by means of a bow. Thus the bow became a tool of the Gods and men, who were able to harness its power and use it as skillfully as the members of the pantheon, became at least in this field akin if not equal to the Gods.
In those distant times, people used simple wooden bows (of the equatorial type), probably made of heavy and hard yew wood with tight grain. It was only through heat treatment over a fire or in hot steam when they were given their proper shape and resilience. Bows were also made of animal horns, prepared in boiling oil or tallow. They usually had a distinctive counter bend through the centre, as they were made from two horns bound with a metal cap. A completely different kind of bow emerged in Assyria in the second millennium BC. It was called the angular bow, thanks to the fact that when strong it took the shape of an isosceles triangle. The ancient Egyptians invested a lot of effort in the construction of their bows. In 1500 BC, they used ornate constructions made of wood and antler, which were covered with canvas and a thin layer of bark. The Egyptian God Anubis, depicted with the head of a jackal, used such a bow. The Persians, on the other hand, utilized bows with angled arms at the nocking tips, taking on a semicircular shape when the string was applied. Later in time, we also find bows with a canted line and stiffened limb ends. The Persian Sun God Mithra used a similar bow to shoot the clouds in hope of bringing life-giving rain to the dry land.
Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian bows represent some of the characteristics of the oriental (eastern) or Asian bow, designed in Central Asia — hence the name. This type, being a significant modification of the straight one, had many variations, which contributed to the richness of the accompanying names. Thus, there were the reflexive, flexive and retroflexive bows. Their length averaged about 140 cm. The bowstring was braided from sheep entrails and ox tendon taken from a section above the forelock. The making of the oriental bow required time and considerable skill, as it had a multilayered structure. All of which, in practice, contributed to their price and the approach towards a person wielding this type of weapon.
As far as the nether reaches of the world are concerned, people used bows, sometimes very dissimilar, sometimes quite alike, but it was always a tool of a superior rank, raising the status of the person to use it. The tribes living in South America, used quite primitive bows of the straight type with very long arrows (up to 2 m), whose arrowheads were the claws of birds or spikes from the tails of stingrays. They also used long (up to 50 cm) wooden arrowheads with barbs and notches, decorated with ornaments. The Botokudzi (Aimora), an indigenous nomadic tribe in eastern Brazil, used powerful bows that were drawn with the strength of arms and legs. Transitional forms, combining elements of the straight and oriental bows, were found in North America and Siberia, among the Eskimos and the Sami, who strengthened their bows with elements of bone, horn and bones. In Japan, the bow (yumi), which originated in China and was up to 2.3 m long, reigned supreme. It was made of narrow strips of bamboo and wood, glued and lacquered together to form a thin, flexible rod. Since the Middle Ages, the straight bow has dominated in Europe. The reflex ones of Turkish type traded in Venice were valued but used sporadically. In the 13th century in England the longbow was developed, or to be more precise, it was the Welsh longbow adapted and used with great success by English infantry. The effective force of this weapon according to historical records confirmed by modern experiments ranged up to 360 metres. Yew, ash, walnut or elm wood was used to make its stave measuring up to 180 cm. The string was made of twisted hemp or flax threads. At first, these bows were not very popular, although their battle qualities were soon appreciated. In effect, for a long time made it a basic element of English weaponry, many times deciding the fate of important battles and entire war campaigns. In parallel, shooting methods were perfected and archery tournaments promoted. Marksmen societies were established, as well as chancery brotherhoods. In 1545, an Englishman Roger Aschan published a treatise on archery called “Toxophilus” a manual listing the rules and regulations for the use of these weapons. The old symbolism of the bow and arrow gained new associations, referring to the knightly ethos and the principles of the established faith. This found expression in many areas of culture and art. European heraldry associated the bow with readiness to fight and the desire for vengeance.
Christian tradition has perpetuated the biblical vision of the Apocalypse Rider mounted on a white horse and armed with a bow. The passion of St Christina and St Sebastian, pierced by numerous arrows, remains in our memory. Our perception of the divine bow’s (arch) affinity with the rainbow, which was seen as a symbol of the connection between gods and humans, goes very deep into the past. It was after the biblical flood that God himself placed his bow “on the clouds”, namely stretched a rainbow in the sky, concluding a covenant with the surviving inhabitants of Earth. In church architecture, this is commemorated by the rainbow, i.e. an arcade arch closing what is known as the rainbow opening at the joint of the nave and the presbytery. It is usually richly decorated with paintings, stucco and architectural elements. Medieval builders began to set up a cross-beam in place of the chord of the arch, on which a crucifix was laid in place of the arrow, as well as statues of the Virgin Mary and St John. Weddings are celebrated under the rainbow arch, the symbol of marital happiness. As far as the symbolism of shapes in architecture is concerned, it is good to mention that the arch represents hands folded in a prayer gesture or arms raised towards Heaven. Even the Roman emperors had triumphal arches erected in order to pass under them at the head of victorious armies — hence the name “triumphal arch” sometimes applied to a mosaic-decorated wall above a rainbow arch. The arches at the entrance to the church recall the victory of Jesus, whilst the churchgoers and priests passing under them imitate, as it were, the marches of the legions. According to apocryphal tradition, in the scene of the reunion of Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Virgin Mary, which took place under the laurel in front of the Golden Gate leading to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the closed arch of its gate signifies the intact virginity of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, it was there that Anna, kissed by her spouse in greeting, supposedly became pregnant.
The introduction of firearms on a large scale eliminated the bow from army weaponry. Perhaps for the last time, it was used on a larger scale at the beginning of the 19th century by the Bashkir and Kalmyk formations, which were part of the Russian army chasing Napoleon. Later, but already to a much-reduced extent, the bow appeared during the Zulus wars, both those with the Boers and at the end of the 19th century, in fights with the English — but this was already the swan song of this weapon, which from then on served as a sporting attribute and less frequently as a means of hunting. Although the combat career of the bow spanned Europe until the 17th century, the belief in its uniqueness remained in people’s consciousness much longer.
This can be illustrated by an astonishing event in the early days of the First World War, when, on 29 September 1914, Arthur Machen, a British columnist, published a story in ‘The Evening News’, entitled ‘The Bowmen’, depicting his vision of the bloody Battle of Mons in western Belgium. There, a small English unit held off an overwhelming German force on 23 August 1914. An author featured ghostly archers summoned to the battlefield by a soldier’s Latin prayer. Spectres shot silvery arrows, killing the advancing enemy. How surprised everyone was when, sometime later, accounts began to emerge of British soldiers claiming to have been helped to battle by angels armed with bows! The public gave credence to these stories, believing the supernatural phenomenon to be a sign of divine support for the Entente armies. So are born the new pop culture ideas, of which the bow has become an important part, and in a way, at a certain period of time, became its pupil. Who does not remember the British series “Robin of Sherwood” starring Michael Praed or the cinema blockbuster from the 90s starring Kevin Costner called “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”. Alternatively, the slightly older among us still picture this character with the great Errol Flynn, cast in the 1938 film “The adventures of Robin Hood”. After all, there have been more than twenty movies devoted to the noble outlaw, not including cartoons, and it was Robin of Loxley who popularized the sport for good in our times — there is a reason why it is said among archers that a skilled shooter can “robinhood” his arrow — which, as we remember, was done by Kevin Costner in the aforementioned movie.
Then it got better and better, the bow appeared on the screen more and more often: among others in The Lord of the Rings, where Orlando Bloom played the role of brave Legolas. Oliver Queen performed in the series Green Arrow, who like Bloom was quite good with a bow, although both gentlemen committed a lot of sins, recognized particularly by those viewers who use a bow on a daily basis. Another extremely popular example, which nota bene influenced the contemporary generation and their interest in archery like Legolas did on people reaching their 30s now, is Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of The Hunger Games. I don’t know if it was a matter of character development over the course of the book and film trilogy, or if Jennifer Lawrence simply learned it herself. But I can’t help thinking that it got better and better from one movie to the next. Alicia Vikander of the latest Tomb Raider also did quite well. Besides, who else holds illusions when the main reason persists unchanged: the bow sells better than the gun or the sword or any other instrument intended to take life. There have been plenty of those films and characters wielding it for that reason only — even Sylvester Stallone, portrayed in his own time as the immortal Rambo, used explosive arrows to take down whole armies of enemies. The ageing Gladiator (Russell Crowe) in 2010 embodied another reincarnation of Robin Hood, and later on, in 2018 a fellow named Taron Egerton literally massacred this poor character with a notable culprit of Jamie Foxx — may Apollo pardon their guilt. Today, thanks to Disney and Marvell, the good old bow once again wins over a number of new fans/adepts of this noble craft. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye does almost unimaginable things, which earlier neither Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, Sylvester Stallone or even Orlando Bloom himself dared to undertake. How close to the truth all this is — we do not know — for the scale of Licentia Poetica applied in Marvel’s picture is so broad that it escapes strict evaluation by experts in the subject. In other words, it’s just a comic book where a guy shoots a bow and how he does it is a secondary matter.
One is for sure, everything becomes history as time passes, everything except for the bow, which has always been with us and, and I daresay, it will be for a long time, for it seems that someone or something has implanted it within our DNA. We not only remember it, seeing it as a tool of Gods and heroes, even those from Marvel but, what is significant here, we still use it. Whether for purely entertaining purposes or perhaps (God forbid) as a means of survival after some terrible cataclysm that lurks around the corner. For what is doom in the eyes of a man who constantly hears about it and has long since grown accustomed to it? What is the spectre of a terrifying future, when a bow and arrow is at hand, just like in that cave from thousands of years ago, which we imagined at the beginning of this article. We Humans and, through us, also the Gods, have made the bow their favourite weapon; perhaps because, looking at its slender silhouette, we see ourselves in it, as if it were the reflection of the human soul or the vessel in which our wild and unbridled hunting nature dwells. One can see it at every turn: in our beliefs, actions and dreams, which are so skilfully illustrated today by our culture — spoken, written and the one meant for our eyes. I once wrote that the bow is life: well, yes, in a way, but it is not the full image. The bow is man’s never-ending dream to become better, the bow is the path to perfection, to enlightenment. It’ is our home, for it has been where we came from, and now it accompanies our journey, and it will be there where we’re heading to — this one thing I know for sure.